As the political, cultural and financial capital of Japan, Tokyo buzzes with energy night and day, blending the uber-traditional and ultra-modern in fascinating and sometimes flummoxing ways. From high fashion to thrilling cuisine and rich culture, this cosmopolitan metropolis has loads to offer Asia newbies and old hands alike, so grab your passport and let's go!
1) It's really big
Tokyo is a sprawling city of over 13 million people and nearly 2,200 square kilometres, and that's without even counting the larger metropolitan area, which includes parts of three neighbouring prefectures and the city of Yokohama. The good news is that the major attractions are largely located inside the Yamanote loop line, serviced by an extensive, punctual rail network and ever-present taxis.
Kanda Festival, ©JNTO
2) The lingo
The Japanese are well aware that their language isn't of much use beyond their borders, so they are incredibly appreciative when visitors make the effort to learn a few phrases. Arigato (thank you), sumimasen (excuse me) and konnichi wa (hello/good day) will go a long way towards ingratiating you with the locals.
That said, Tokyo is gearing up for the 2020 Olympics so signage is increasingly in English and many tourist sites are beefing up their foreign language services, so don't worry unduly about the language barrier.
Ueno Park, ©JNTO
3) The address system
Even with an address, a building can be hard to find. The address system is structured around neighborhoods and blocks, not streets, and the numbers don't even go in sequential order.
Generally, addresses in Tokyo are given as ward, neighbourhood, section-block-building. For example, the tourist information office in near Tokyo Station is at Chiyoda-ku, Marunouchi 3-3-1. Save yourself the headache of trying to understand the system's byzantine logic and use a map application liberally.
Tokyo Shinjuku, ©JNTO
With so many people in such tight spaces, Tokyoites have evolved a deep appreciation for politesse. This includes orderly queuing for everything, strict punctuality and impeccable customer service. Expect to be greeted everywhere with a hearty irrashaimase (welcome!) and for any event or meeting to start on the dot.
Senso-ji Temple, ©JNTO
5) Sushi and sashimi
Yes, raw fish is commonly eaten in Japan. In Tokyo, there is a vast array of options, from high-end Michelin-starred gastro-shrines to the zany fast food of conveyor belt sushi. You really can't go wrong, though a stop at one of the restaurants clustered around the Tsukiji Fish Market is a must-do. Some tips:
- It's bad form to mix wasabi in your soy sauce. If you want more than the chef has already used, put it on top of the fish.
-You should dip the fish part, not the rice, into the soy sauce. This prevents the rice from falling apart. Another option is to use the strips of ginger provided as a paintbrush, dipping it in the soy sauce and then on the fish.
-Sushi is traditionally eaten with your hands. At high-end shops, there will be a cloth for wiping your fingers next to the place setting. Using chopsticks is also OK, but take care to keep the rice from falling apart.
6) No tipping needed
Tipping is never required in Tokyo. In fact, attempting to give someone a tip will result in confusion at best and an insult at worst. To express appreciation, a simple thank you and a compliment on the service more than suffice.
7) Cash is still king
Japan is still very much a cash society, although cards have become more commonly used in big cities like Tokyo in recent years. High-end hotels, restaurants and shops can be expected to take at least Visa and MasterCard, as should most taxis in central Tokyo, though it never hurts to carry cash just in case. International bank cards are accepted at post office, 7-Eleven and Citibank ATMs.
Ozoni soup, ©JNTO
8) Veggies and vegans beware, fish abounds
Those following vegetarian and vegan diets need to be extra careful in Tokyo. Dashi, the soup stock used as a base in Japanese cooking, is often made with fish, so even innocent-looking simmered vegetables may not be meat-free.
Fish and sometimes even chicken are not considered meat and vegetarianism isn't very common, so there is plenty of room for confusion. Make use of these handy phrase cards if you have dietary restrictions.
9) Shoes on, slippers off
You probably know that shoes are removed in Japanese homes, but this goes for some businesses and restaurants as well. If there are shelves for shoes at the entrance or a step up just inside the door, it's probably a place where the shoes need to come off. Pack shoes that are easy to slip on and off.
Ginkgo Trees, ©JNTO
10) Automation nation
The Japanese love to automate anything and everything, from toilets to ticket gates and vending machines. The one that catches most visitors on the wrong foot is taxi doors. The back door of a taxi will automatically pop open for you and close behind you. There is no need to touch the door at all, and indeed doing so can damage the mechanism, so the driver will scold you for trying. Just sit back and relax!